Evil Dee Details What Led To The Demise Of Rawkus Records
DJ Evil Dee was a onetime artist at Rawkus Records. In the fall of 1997, he hosted and mixed the first Soundbombing compilation. That release would propel the label launched by Jarret Myer and Brian Brater onto the radars of many. With it, plenty of Hip-Hop Heads got a taste of Talib Kweli, Mos Def (nka Yasiin Bey), El-P, R.A. The Rugged Man, and others. The Soundboming series lasted more than five years. Additionally, in 2001, Evil Dee and brother Mr. Walt released Da Beatminerz’ Brace 4 Impak. The production LP also included work from then-Beatminerz members Baby Paul, Rich Blak, and Chocolate Ty. He also produced on Black Star’s lone LP.
In a conversation with The Library With Tim Einenkel, the Bushwick, Brooklyn native DJ/producer recalls those breakthrough years at Rawkus. He also opines on why the label, with funding from James Murdoch (son of media magnate Rupert Murdoch), made some moves that ultimately halted a glorious run of introducing some legendary artists to eager masses.
“Let me tell y’all the beginning of Soundbombing,” Evil Dee says at 22:30. “Soundbombing began as me being a fan of Rawkus Records. Brian and Jarret, who was the owners of Rawkus Records, [were] trying to pick my brain. Rawkus Records was formed ’cause of Nervous Records.” Nervous, started by Mike Weiss, released two legendary albums, Black Moon’s Enta Da Stage and Smif-N-Wessun’s Dah Shinin‘, before much of the Boot Camp Clik set up shop at Buckshot and Dru Ha’s Duck Down label. “They’d seen how Nervous and Black Moon operated [and wanted to emulate it]. ‘Cause when Rawkus first came out, they did Rock and they did like Techo records. Like, they was buggin’. Then, all of a sudden, they just started doin’ Hip-Hop.” Evil Dee says that Rawkus also hired some former Nervous employees. The latter label was launched by Mike Weiss and released product by Todd Terry, Mad Lion, and DJ Spinna’s Polyrhythm Addicts, among others.
Evil Dee said that Rawkus’ founders witnessed him successfully and independently sell Shadez Of Brooklyn’s “Change” b/w “When It Rains It Pours” out of his house. “I sold like 100,000 records; they was like, ‘Whoa, well…wait a minute. How’s he doing this?’ So I had a meeting with Rawkus.”
From that meeting, Evil Dee offered to create a tape for the fledgling label. He asked for access to the roster and provided free studio time at a legendary Midtown Manhattan enclave. “I said, ‘Yo, I got mad time at D&D [Studios]; just [send artists there]. Matter of fact, come by tonight. Invite a couple cats through, we’s gon’ make this tape.’ That’s what happened. It was one night. Everybody came through, and I recorded freestyles. R.A. The Rugged Man…I recorded Black Star; I recorded a bunch of stuff. Then, I sat and I started puttin’ this tape together. I went and got acetates cut so I could blend everything, and I put this tape together. Brian and Jarret was like, ‘How much do you want for this tape?’ I was like, ‘Yo, it’s a free giveaway;’ I said, ‘You know what? I’ll charge you $500.’ Boom, boom, boom, we did the exchange.”
According to Evil, a week later the young execs had a change of plan. While Evil Dee says he was reluctant at first, the mixtape became a formal, distributed release. Myer and Brater reportedly thought the work was an exceptional reflection of Evil Dee’s HOT 97 radio show as well as his street mixtapes.
A meeting followed. Evil Dee says he recalls receiving a $10,000 advance for the work that was now becoming an album. They also discussed a royalty plan for the release. “They put Soundbombing out, right? And it explodes.” Evil Dee admits that he was surprised by the response. “This was the only album [to this point] where [Rawkus] collected royalties,” Evil alleges. “Their other albums, they over-spent, over-spent, over-spent. This was the first album they made money back.” Excited, the label men reportedly asked Evil Dee to mix a Soundbombing 2. However, the veteran declined. At his suggestion to use other DJs, Rawkus hired The Beat Junkies’ J. Rocc and DJ Babu. “What’s funny is, to this day, I have not received royalties from them. To this day. But, it’s cool. The album is a historic album, and people love it. It wasn’t intended to come out.” Noticing a trend that followed, Dee adds, “I was just making a tape. But that’s the power of mixtapes.”
In the final two minutes of the interview, he expresses why he believes the label did not last. “At the time, Rawkus was about the music. Then, when they started the whole trying to be Def Jam [Records concept], that’s what killed them.”
As a former record clerk, Evil recalls the power of seeing crates containing dividers simply labeled “Rawkus.” Having witnessed it in Japan, the Black Moon co-founder praises the power of the label’s brand. “I remember hitting them up and being like, Yo guys, whatever y’all doin’ now, keep doin’ it. ‘Cause this is what’s makin’ y’all legendary.” As the label expanded, it experienced radio and commercial success. “What happened was, they got blinded by the money coming in. All the big [music executives] had houses in the Hamptons, so Rawkus went and got a house in the Hamptons. I remember when I got my [Da Beatminerz] deal with them, they wanted to give me a Rawkus chain—a platinum chain with diamonds on it. I told them, I said, ‘Look, if you give me that chain, I’ma take pictures with y’all up here. We gonna ha-ha-ha and he-he-he. As soon as I walk out of here, I’m gonna pawn it and go buy records! So I don’t think y’all should do this. If you wanna give me something, give me money to go buy studio equipment. Don’t give me a chain, ’cause I don’t rock chains like that.’ At the time, I had a lot of gold chains, but I was rockin’ that for [Black Moon’s] ‘Two Turntables & A Mic’ video shoot we was doin’. But the Rawkus dudes…success derailed them. If they would have stayed with what they did, they would still be here. Rawkus would still be here, like Duck Down is still here.”
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Additionally, at the 15:00 mark, Evil confirms that a fourth Black Moon album is coming. The trio of Buckshot, 5FT, and Dee have not released an album in more than 15 years. The co-founder says that the follow-up to Total Eclipse will include sampling and live instrumentation.